Batture Ritual Shows the Importance of the Mississippi River
By Darcey Pittman
A dark room with ambient sounds and stunning visuals was packed with an overflowing audience (including two dogs) for the final day of Jeff Whetstone’s Batture Ritual at the Julie Saul Gallery in Chelsea. Consisting of six photographs and a 24-minute film, the exhibit focuses on the banks of the Mississippi River in New Orleans, Louisiana. Whetstone spoke on the exhibit’s closing day about his inspiration and the work’s larger significance given the pivotal role the river plays in the global economy.
The name Batture Ritual comes from the French-Creole word “batture,” meaning a river’s edge consisting of mud, trees, and leaves that disappears in high tide and re-emerges in low tide. Whetstone found this environment intriguing because of its unimprovable, unbuildable nature that makes it essentially worthless. He discovered a lone, gangly tree in the Mississippi’s batture that is featured in most of the film and in some of the photographs of the exhibit. The film is centered around the tree situated upon the river, representing a 24-hour day shown in 24 minutes with the sunrise, day-time boat traffic, and calm into the night.
“It [the film] is structured around one shot and that’s the shot of this tree,” Whetstone said. “This tree was one of the first sights that I saw when I was looking for some interface between humans and the incredible environment.”
A key element of the film is its sound, which Whetstone let continue during his talk despite its high volume, a distraction from the ongoing dialogue. The sound is based on the background noise of ships and water at the batture’s location, but Whetstone chose to alter it in post-production through harmonics and synthesis to create a more transcendent quality. Whetstone describes the noise as being “photoshopped from the picture of the sound.”
One thing that drew Whetstone to focus on this location is the Mississippi River’s strategic economic location for the global economy. Whetstone observed ships traveling in and out of the Mississippi from all over the world, but there was no police presence along the shore, no one there except some fishermen and the homeless. The contrast of manmade ships with raw nature and a struggling community is what makes Whetstone’s work stand out.
“I can’t exaggerate how important the Mississippi Rivers is to America,” Whetstone said. “People have been baptized in it, people have been drowned in it, enslaved people have been subjected to death in it.”
Whetstone respects the river in a “spiritual” way because of its power, an entity that will withstand capitalism and survive “long after our systems have crumbled.” While the river is more long-lasting, Whetstone sees it as a place for nature, history, and culture to meet. Whetstone’s awe of this location carries through in his images, evident by his use of contrasted shadowing and stark visuals to create a unique and compelling collection of work.